Poker machine (pokies) reform is shaping up to be a key issue of the NSW election in March. Premier Dominic Perrottet wants to introduce cashless gaming statewide, while Labor has released an alternative proposal this week.
Pokies are key reason why Australians lose more to gambling than any other population in the world. It’s particularly bad in NSW, which has the most machines and the highest losses per person of any jurisdiction.
Here’s what you need to know.
There are about 200,000 pokies in Australia. Australia is an international outlier because it allows machines outside casinos (except in WA). Pokies account for half of gambling losses in Australia.
NSW was the first state to legalise pokies and allowed them into NSW hotels in 1997 under Labor Premier Bob Carr. There are now about 90,000 machines in the state. According to the latest figures, these machines turn over almost $100 billion a year. The state government collects over $1 billion a year in pokie taxes.
Last year, the NSW Crime Commission recommended banning the use of cash in pokies. This was to improve the ability to trace what the Commission said was a “significant” amount of “dirty money” (proceeds of crime) passing through the machines each year.
Perrottet accepted the recommendation, saying last year it was “not a matter of if we do it [but] how we do it”. However, the Nationals, who form part of his Government, have opposed the idea.
Last week, Perrottet confirmed cashless gaming was still his policy but has not yet released details. It’s expected the policy may include a ‘mandatory pre-commitment’ scheme. This would require gamblers to make a binding commitment before they use a machine about how much they’re willing to lose.
Norway and Sweden use these schemes and there is evidence they reduce problem gambling.
No Australian jurisdiction currently has such a scheme, but Tasmania has committed to one. Victoria has an optional scheme, but an independent evaluation found it had “not been a success” and usage was low.
In 2010, the Labor Government agreed to an Australia-wide mandatory pre-commitment scheme but abandoned this commitment in 2012. Advocates of the change suggested this was due to the influence of the gambling lobby, which is a major donor to political parties.
Labor does not support implementing cashless gaming, instead proposing a trial of cashless cards in 500 machines.
Labor also announced a number of other policies this week, including reducing the maximum a person can put into a machine from $5,000 to $500 and reducing the total number of machines in the state.
Clubs can currently only buy machines in limited circumstances with formal authorisation and must surrender one machine for every three they buy. Labor would change this to one for every two.
Labor is also promising to ban the promotion of gambling venues, including ‘VIP Lounge’ signs, and to ban political donations from machine-operating venues. It also supports allowing third parties (e.g. a relative) to apply to ban someone from accessing machines, to be enforced using existing ‘facial recognition’ technology. This idea is supported by ClubsNSW.
Prominent anti-gambling advocate Tim Costello is in favour of some aspects of Labor’s proposal but is critical of its failure to support cashless gaming and ‘mandatory pre-commitment’, which he calls the “gold standard”.